A city councillor says it’s up to the provincial and federal governments to bail out Winnipeg from having to allow raw sewage to flow directly into the Red River during periods of heavy rain.
On the weekend, as a major storm bashed Winnipeg, almost 60 million litres was allowed to discharge into the river because city crews determined the south end sewage treatment plant was overwhelmed.
Coun. Brian Mayes, chairman of the water and waste committee, said he found out about the diversion by reading the Free Press on Wednesday.
"To find out about this through the media is frustrating as a councillor, but I’ll be sure to add it to the (committee) agenda next week and we’ll be asking questions," he said.
The plant was over capacity and couldn’t handle record-high volumes of water, so staff diverted outflow into the Red River and turned off pumps at three pumping stations to protect upstream homes from basement flooding. That sent an estimated 59.6 million litres of raw sewage into the river April 23-25.
The city reported the incident via the Manitoba Environment, Climate and Parks accident reporting line. Last weekend’s incident followed an outflow of 74 million litres of diluted sewage going into the Assiniboine River over multiple days in late March.
Mayes said he believes longstanding problems with Winnipeg’s combined sewer system are to blame. In older neighbourhoods, household wastewater mixes in the same pipes with runoff storm water, overloading the sewer system.
City council recently approved a budget increase meant to reduce combined sewer overflows. The annual budget will increase to $45 million from $30 million, starting in 2024.
But Winnipeg needs matching funds from the provincial and federal governments to upgrade its sewer system over the next 20 years, Mayes said.
"No one’s happy with it. We are accelerating our budget. I think we need some help. I do think we’re tackling the project, it’s a massive project, but no one’s happy with this."
No environmental fines for diverting sewage into local rivers have been discussed, Mayes said.
"If the province is going to fine us, then lend us a hand here, as well. Help us fund a solution."
Premier Heather Stefanson was not available to answer questions Wednesday. A spokesperson from the environment department sent an emailed statement in response to Free Press inquiries.
"As the provincial environmental regulator, we are very concerned with this volume of sewage entering our waterways. We are also worried about the growing frequency of these incidents. With another potential storm predicted for Winnipeg and southern Manitoba this weekend, we encourage the city to take steps to ensure similar discharges do not occur again. (The department) looks forward to receiving a plan that includes a funding source for the significant upgrades for combined sewer overflow work in the City of Winnipeg."
Even though the Red and Assiniboine rivers aren’t used for drinking water, sewage creates toxic conditions for fish and aquatic ecosystems, as well as downstream communities, beaches and fisheries, said Marianne Cerilli, past-chair of the Wolseley Residents’ Association. The neighbourhood group has dealt with sewage outflow into the Assiniboine River.
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"The city is framing this as: ‘We either have a choice between untreated sewage going in the river or it overflowing into people’s homes and basements,’ " Cerilli said. "Other municipalities that have successfully dealt with their combined sewer problems… They don’t frame it that way. They say there are alternatives."
A green plan needs to be included in the city’s blueprints to upgrade the combined sewer system, Cerilli said, particularly as the changing climate makes storms and heavier precipitation more frequent.
Other cities have focused on planting rooftop gardens and urban agriculture that can soak up rainwater and reduce the amount of overland water that flows into sewers.
"I don’t see a lot of evidence of Winnipeg having a strategy like that," she said.
— with files from Danielle Da Silva
Katie May Reporter
Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.
Hundreds of Winnipeggers dealt with sewage backing up into their basements last weekend, due to the municipal system being overcapacity.
The City of Winnipeg received 395 calls about sewers backing up April 22-25, and the majority of those residents later received a notice from the city indicating the sewer system got overwhelmed during the rainstorm.
Elliott Levine was one of those homeowners. Raw sewage backed up through the toilet and soaked his basement overnight Saturday, filling the house with a disgusting stench.
The Kingston Crescent resident has lived in the house for more than 50 years with no prior flooding issues. He said the city should have warned residents about the possibility of sewer backups, considering the weather forecast.
“I had some protections, but it would have been more if I’d known a few hours earlier,” he said.
Levine is waiting for confirmed damage estimates, but believes he’s on the hook for several thousands of dollars worth of restoration, and has lost some irreplaceable artwork.
The City of Winnipeg turned off all pumps at three wastewater pumping stations that flow into the south end treatment plant around midnight Sunday. The shutdowns at the Cockburn Street, Churchill Drive, and Mager Drive West stations happened a few hours after Levine and his neighbours first noticed sewage backing up into their basements.
“At the time of this shutdown, all three pumping stations were already experiencing overflows due to an ongoing wet weather event,” the water and waste department stated in its online incident report.